The Baal Shem Tov’s Question

“Whip the horses until they know they are horses.” “Whip the horses until they cease to be horses!” – Two versions of the words that inspired Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi to stay in Mezritch and continue his study of chassidus.

~2500 years ago, Pythagoras proved his famous theorem with demonstration strong as prophecy. To this day, the majority of the public who never uses geometry after freshman year still knows that A squared plus B squared equals C squared. This, at least, can be relied upon. The Greeks knew it well. Brilliant men such as Pythagoras and Plato formed (pun!) a religious attachment to mathematics and its truth that nowadays, despite our vastly increased knowledge, seems kind of off. Oh, how the heart in the grips of terror and despair leaps to behold the square on the hypotenuse, a solid form in the midst of so much shifting doubt, the rock of our deliverance!

We may laugh, but we should mourn. It is a terrible tragedy that we have kept the theorem but lost what made it sacred to wise men’s eyes. Indeed, it is perhaps our greatest tragedy. Much of our current confusion is due to a surplus of answers to questions we have never asked. Just as the average man today has possesses riches King Midas could not dream of, we each, through advances both in knowledge and communication, have access to information that would drop Pythagoras to his knees. It does not drop us to our knees or draw our eyes heavenward because, again, like our physical wealth, our knowledge floats around us in a sort of unidirectional nimbus, a halo of stuff that just is, its purpose mysterious. The wealth of Wikipedia or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy seems to sit there awkwardly, immodestly huge, unable to insist on a particular purpose, because after all knowledge is just knowledge and though I can tell you more about triangles than Euclid ever suspected I cannot tell you why it’s important. Though Plato knew less math, he knew what question his math answered and thus he consecrated it.

In losing the questions, our answers cease to seem like answers at all.

I propose that, generally speaking, we are lost in a doubled darkness. Darkness, because we don’t know the question the triangle answers. And a deeper darkness, because even if we had the questions, we wouldn’t know which questions the questions answered. In other words, when we think of this whole business of answers and their questions, we may feel that it’s not so bad. After all, we still have the answers, the facts, whole and complete, and the main role of the questions was to make the answers seem meaningful, to help Plato sleep easier at night. But that’s not how Plato, nor Aristotle, nor, l’havdil, the Rambam saw it. On the contrary — the question that draws forth “the answer” of any creation (what we might in Kabbalah call its chochma) is one of its causes and ultimately the thing that gives it not just meaning to the observer but Meaning in the scheme of creation. Indeed, the notion that each question of a limited nature is the answer to yet another (higher-order) question eventually led even the philosophers of pagan societies toward the existence of something which simply is in-and-of itself, and is not the answer to any further question…

So our path back into the light of understanding, for the Pythagorean theorem or anything else, is to learn the question and then to see how the question is essential to the answer.

Take, for example, the terse teaching of the Baal Shem Tov I wrote about last year at this time“Everything is by Divine Providence. If a leaf is turned over by a breeze, it is only because this has been specifically ordained by G‑d to serve a particular function within the purpose of creation.”

It is entirely possible to know this teaching for years and even think about it often without ever knowing what question it answers. I’ve done it.

It’s not just the question of whether G-d has divine providence over everything. If that were all, the teaching would just say that. It appears that “everything” is not enough; we must hear about a leaf in a breeze, and the leaf in the breeze is not itself merely analogous to “everything.” What is the significance of the leaf?

The significance of the leaf is its insignificance. We are learning that G-d cares about the leaf in the wind because something about the leaf implies G-d shouldn’t care about it. The Baal Shem Tov doesn’t teach that “Every single hand you are dealt in poker is ordained by G-d,” or “Every wheel that falls off one’s wagon is divinely decided.” Such teachings imply a question predicated on a deterministic universe, where the antithesis of divine providence is luck or happenstance. The question would be, “Does G-d rule over even the things that seem random?” and the answer would be yes. Instead, we have a leaf turning in the wind, an example we wouldn’t normally consider luck or happenstance because we barely consider it an occurrence. In fact, the Baal Shem Tov’s question, as betrayed by his example, is, “Does G-d rule over even the lowly, insignificant creations?” and the answer is yes. In short — Q: Does G-d have time for my frivolities? A: G-d has time even for a leaf.

The difference between the actual question and the possible question is vast. The Baal Shem Tov is not asking whether G-d has control over those things which seem given over to chance or nature. This would implicitly acknowledge a dichotomy between the things that we think must happen (e.g., our rug must stay on the living room floor and not levitate us to a whole new world) and things where, well, the Creator can fudge the numbers (I get a straight instead of a full house), and we would be answering that both deterministic nature and “chance” are ruled over by one G-d. Compare to the leaf in the wind, in which the implication is a hierarchy of significance, that G-d would seem to care more about the Truth or human beings or animals than He does about a single part of a single plant, and we insist that, in fact, even the unimportant things are important to Him.

It is the difference between whether we have as our baseline a universe of unranked answers, or a universe of answers demanding questions which demand further questions. To say G-d cares even about a poker hand is to have as our question whether anything is truly random, to look at the universe as a collection of facts possibly attributable to a different cause than the apparent one. But to say G-d cares even about a leaf is to have as our question whether the inherent hierarchy of the universe, the fact that some things are greater and better than others, is reflective of G-d’s involvement in the creation — that better things are close to Him, and smaller/worse/lesser things are far. The first approach says that everything matters because nothing matters because the hierarchy is an illusion. The second approach says that the hierarchy is true but G-d still cares about everything, and you work out the contradiction.

If the teaching were about playing cards or wagon wheels, we might think that G-d treats differently with necessity and happenstance, and the Baal Shem Tov comes to teach us that he cares equally for both. Really, the Baal Shem Tov teaches us something far deeper and more profound — that there is a G-d utterly unbound by nature, and a universe of occurrences that spirals forth from the creator in ranks of importance, purpose, and meaning. It is only logical that G-d should care more about an angel or the form of a triangle than a single leaf in the wind. It is only logical that He should care more about the question than the answer.

The Baal Shem Tov comes and teaches us that G-d cares even about the answers, about the brute facts, about our dead triangle, and not just Plato’s sacred one. The Baal Shem Tov teaches that even now, at the end of history, in the multilayered dark, the appearance of chaos and questionless answers is false, because even the answers come directly from G-d, and what at first glance seems unimportant is as G-dly as the Infinite Light.

We live in a time when our answers have forgotten they are answers. The Baal Shem Tov’s question, about the significance of that which seems insignificant, reminds the answer that it is an answer, that G-d cares about even the irrelevant leaf. But now that the G-d cares about the leaf, how insignificant is it really? The need for the question, for viewing the leaf as a tiny creation in a universe of vastly more important beings, is eliminated. The leaf, by the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching, has gained its own direct connection to G-d; its own soul is on display.

The answer has been whipped and forgotten it’s an answer, much like the unmoved mover who creates and sustains the world, and even the darkness has become light.